Washington Hosts Hearing on Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Record

September 15th, 2016

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The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress hosted a hearing on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan. Radio Liberty reporter Khadija Ismayil joined the discussions from Baku via Skype.

“For those of you who do not know me, I am an Azerbaijani investigative journalist who was wrongly imprisoned for more than a year and half in retaliation for investigating corruption among the Azerbaijani President’s friends and family,” Khadija Ismayil said addressing the hearing participants. “When the world was shaken by the Panama Papers revelations, I was already in jail for my own Panama papers. The offshore investigations I authored revealed the business interests of President Aliyev’s family in mobile communications, gold mining, construction, tourism, banking, and airline transportation,” she continued. “None of the corruption investigations my colleagues and I carried out led to investigations by the government of Azerbaijan. Instead, journalists were punished – killed, like Elmar Huseynov, or arrested, like me and Seymur Hezi,” Khadija Ismayil stressed. “The siblings of Azerbaijani oligarchs are free to open lobbying organizations and NGOs in the United States and Europe, while American, British and European NGOs, like the National Democratic Institute, Oxfam, and the Human Rights House Foundation, were forced to close their offices in Azerbaijan,” the journalist noted. Khadija Ismayil also touched on the problem of political prisoners. “The government has consistently denied that there are any political prisoners in Azerbaijan, although their existence has been confirmed by decisions of the European Court of Human Rights,” she noted. The journalist concluded her speech by offered some recommendations on tackling corruption and human rights crackdown and increasing transparency.

Azerbaijan Popular Front Party chairman Ali Karimli’s son Turkel Karimli also attended the discussions on behalf of his father, who he said was unable to travel abroad due to passport problems created by the government. “The Government of Azerbaijan has begun to implement a relentless and uncompromising plan to eradicate the fundamental pillars of Azerbaijani democracy: political opposition, political parties, civil society, and a free, transparent media. Its ultimate aim is to silence any alternative voices and to cripple the multi-party system in Azerbaijan,” Turkel Karimli said. Touching on the upcoming September 26th constitutional referendum, Turkel Karimli said: “This will be the third attempt to amend the original meaning of the Constitution adopted in 1995, and to grant Ilham Aliyev even more extensive executive powers. The Aliyev regime wants to completely abolish the essential republican principles of separation of powers, and of checks and balances. These principles are already ignored and exist on paper only, yet Ilham Aliyev is adamant in his intention to formalize absolute power.” Turkel Karimli then gave a detailed insight into the government’s policy of silencing independent media, persecuting democratic opposition, and targeting dissidents and their families. Karimli believes the underlying cause of the recently intensified crackdown on dissent is new socio-economic reality in Azerbaijan, as well as the recent increase in the political opposition’s strength and reach despite hardships and unprecedented repression. “The West must do everything in its considerable power to discourage Aliyev from continuous engagement in political repression, and to deliver a clear message that such conduct will no longer be tolerated,” Turkel Karimli said in conclusion.

Former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard D. Kauzlarich also made a speech at the hearing. “As many of you know, Azerbaijan’s current President, Ilham Aliyev, took over from his father in 2003. The Aliyev government has long been plagued by allegations of corruption, and since the fall of 2013 has been conducting a crackdown on dissent, rounding up and jailing journalists, political opposition, civil society, and religious activists,” the former ambassador said in his opening remarks. “On July 18, the President announced proposed constitutional amendments designed with the clear intent to strengthen the hold on power of the current regime. Beginning in mid-July, under the guise of rooting out supposed Gulenist supporters, the regime intensified its crackdown on political opposition and independent media. This included a preposterous lie tying the political opposition and the United States Government to Gulenist efforts to undermine the referendum and even plotting a coup,” Mr. Kauzlarich emphasised. The former ambassador opined that the referendum would be rigged and would be followed by an early presidential election to secure the incumbent’s stay in power before a stronger economic recession sets in by the time of the scheduled 2018 elections. Kauzlarich called on the US government to replace its quiet diplomacy with respect to Azerbaijan with more public diplomacy that involves US Embassy and other US Government, officials meeting regularly and visibly with opposition, human rights, independent media, and NGO representatives. “Azerbaijan also needs to undertake radical economic reforms. It cannot do that in a social/economic/political setting defined by corruption, limits on personal freedom and initiative, and perpetuation of Soviet-style command-economy thinking,” the former ambassador said as concluding remarks.

The hearing at the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission coincides with the surge of a new wave of arrests in Azerbaijan. On the eve of the referendum on constitutional amendments appointed by President Ilham Aliyev, a number of journalists and political party activists have been arrested on various charges.